The children at the Sibu Agape Centre love meeting Dr Toh Teck Hock because he cares for them and treats them like his own. In many ways, the community-based centre embodies the good work that the paediatrician and his colleagues have put in to better the lives of special needs children in Sibu.
The centre houses the Lau King Howe Memorial Children Clinic and four NGOs – Association for Children with Special Needs Sibu, Sibu Autistic Association, Methodist Care Centre and Special Olympics Sarawak, Sibu Chapter.
It has been instrumental in raising awareness about disabilities and providing services for special needs children in Sibu since 2006.
Built on government land and funded by the community, the Agape Centre is a smart partnership with schools, the social welfare department and NGOs. It also offers home programmes and outreach services, and serves as a training centre for those working in special needs.
Dr Toh, who worked in Britain, Singapore and Australia before returning to Sibu in 2004, has been instrumental in developing and shaping the community and state’s response to special needs education and care.
For the past 15 years, Dr Toh’s work has centred on inclusion, where all children learn together, even those with challenges, and are supported according to their strengths and weaknesses.
“Education is a means of acquiring knowledge and skills, and children need it for their future. Their future is also the country’s future. Every child is unique, they have different potentials,” asserts Dr Toh, 48, who received the Advocacy Award from the Special Education Network in Asia (Senia) last year, in recognition of his work in creating awareness and advocating for children and youth with disabilities in Asia.
“Inclusive education is also a fundamental right, and the basis for us to create a society and a country that is inclusive. The opposite is segregation, it creates differences, obstacles, disharmony.”
Beginning this year, the Education Ministry has adopted a zero-reject policy, making it compulsory for schools to accept all special needs students and prepare an individualised education plan for every child. Schools must also cater to special needs students by installing ramps and using classes on the ground floor.
As of last year, there are 83,598 special needs students registered at 34 special education schools, 2,343 schools with a Special Needs Integration Programme and 6,202 schools with an Inclusive Education Programme.
“Inclusive education means every child is recognised differently, we look at their strengths and weaknesses. We support them and let them achieve their maximum potential,” said Dr Toh, who is the National Early Childhood Intervention Council VP and the Association for Children with Special Needs Sibu honorary secretary.
In Sibu, the push for inclusive education has been quite successful, and it starts with advocating for an early intervention programme (EIP) to prepare special needs children for school, says Dr Toh.
There are six government primary schools, four Chinese primary schools and four secondary schools that implement inclusive education in Sibu and the government is encouraging all schools to follow suit.
“I am proud to say that 50% of children who do EIP ended up in the mainstream education system. SJK (C) Thai Kwang is the first Chinese school in the country in 2005 to accept these children and most Chinese schools in town are willing to accept them,” added Dr Toh, who said teacher training is crucial.
One of the Education Ministry’s key strategies in implementing the zero-reject policy is training preschool teachers on how to screen and identify developmental delays. In Sarawak, they also organise conferences to delve deeper into inclusive education, such as the recent Sarawak Conference on Inclusive Early Childhood Education.
“We do have many good teachers but they faced many unsupportive factors such as big classes, inadequate class time and too much curriculum to cover and unrealistic expectations.”
There is also a need to address worries about learning with special needs classmates.
“In inclusive education, children grow up together and accept other people’s weaknesses. You learn from others and are able to build yourself up. So children without special needs can also learn from them,” says Dr Toh, who received the Outstanding Young Malaysian Award in 2010 in the category of Contribution to Children, World Peace or Human Rights.
Inclusion of special needs children, however, is not confined to schools, says Dr Toh, for it is ultimately about society’s acceptance of the disabled.
“A society that is committed to inclusiveness starts from parents who accept their children who have difficulty in learning and development, and intervened early, to health professionals and educationists who are well trained to support them … and, finally, a society that is willing to accept differences and allow inclusiveness, that is to learn and grow with these children, remove barriers, make services accessible not just in school but in the whole community.”
Society should not neglect those with physical disabilities and learning difficultie for they will grow up dependent, says Dr Toh, who estimates that they make up 15% to 20% of the population.
“Can you imagine if 20% of our society are depending on the 80% to feed them, to carry them from one place to another?” he says.
Hence, Dr Toh believes it’s imperative to train children with disabilities to be independent from young. “Detect special needs children early, and provide them quality early childhood intervention. School-ready children will then be able to learn better in an inclusive setting,” he says.
Over the years, special needs students in inclusion programmes have completed their secondary education and some have gone on to university. “This is the good outcome with our inclusive education. We will continue with our work to help children maximise their potential,” declares Dr Toh.